Saturday, July 23, 2011

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Liza Voges

Liza Pulitzer Voges has been a literary agent for childrens' book author and illustrators for almost 30 years working with over 40 clients. Highlights of the years include Lois Ehlert's Caldecott Honor for COLOR ZOO; Gloria Whelan's National Book Award forHOMELESS BIRD; and Sucie Stevenson's E.B. White award for HENRY AND MUDGE AND THE GREAT GRANDPAS. The growth of authors such as Dan Gutman, Joan Holub, Suzanne Williams, Shutta Crum, and many others is what makes the job irresistible.

Picture books are still of interest but I'm also interested in young adult, particularly for boys. A middle grade fantasy would also be fun to see. Check out the Eden Street website at for more information.

And now Liza Voges faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I have many, many in both adult and children's books but all time, my three favorite books are MARCH (Brooks), WE'RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT(Oxenbury), and MOO BAH LA LA LA(Boyton) -- I could read them over and over (have have!)

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?


Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Professionalism, loyalty, curiosity -- Professionalism because it shows commitment to the business; loyalty as it shows character, and curiosity as it shows willingness to grow.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

Unique historical fiction such as REVOLUTION or NORTHERN LIGHT or PRISONER IN THE PALACE and a wonderful middle grade fantasy.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is finding just the right editor for an author! Least favorite thing is reading more contracts in a day than manuscripts -- actually that is bittersweet!

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Read, read, read and know your market! Take time to enjoy the craft too!

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Louisa May Alcott -- I love to know more about how her sense of family came to be such a means to her creativity and talent.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

7 Questions For: Author Dan Gutman

Dan Gutman was raised in a mud hut by a pack of wild monkeys in the rain forest of Rangoon.Okay, okay, he really grew up in New Jersey. In fact, he still lives there. But being raised by wild monkeys in Rangoon would have been a lot cooler.

Dan compensated for his bland and uneventful childhood by growing up to write farfetched stories for kids such as The Genius Files (Click here to read the Ninja's review of the first book in the series, Mission Unstoppable), Homework Machine, The Million Dollar Shot, and his popular baseball card adventure series. He’s also written a whole bunch of other books that didn't sell and went out of print, so we won’t mention them here.

Like a lot of boys, Dan hated to read, but loved sports. That’s one big reason why he writes a lot about sports and aims his books at reluctant readers like himself. Unfortunately, he was a lousy athlete as a kid. In fact, he was so bad that his friends made him play one-on-one, with himself.

Dan graduated from Rutgers University in 1977 with a degree in psychology (which means, in Latin, "a total waste of time").. He never took a writing class in his life, and it shows. He doesn't know how to create beautiful “word pictures.” He never learned the standard formula for a novel. There is no symbolism or deep moral lessons in his books. He still doesn't know the difference between a simile and a metaphor.

Dan’s books are known for four things: a quirky, exciting plot that grabs the reader and won’t let go, an almost total lack of (boring) description, and a surprise ending. Wait, that’s only three things. Well, Dan’s books are also made out of paper. That makes four things. Also, he always sticks the name Herb Dunn into his novels somewhere. This is just a cheap trick to force his old college friend Herb Dunn to read his books.

When he’s not writing books, Dan loves to travel, ride his bike, and write self-aggrandizing third-person autobiographies like this one.We could go on and on telling you lots of great stuff about Dan, his fantastic books, and what a terrific guy he is. But it would be a big bore. Besides, you've got more important stuff to do, like sort out your recycling. So if you want to find out more about Dan or his brilliant and wonderful daughter Emma who is looking over his shoulder as he writes this, go to his web site (

Dan thinks you should buy lots of his books, for three reasons. Kids will love them, and Dan needs the money.Wait, that’s only two reasons.

And now Dan Gutman faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.  Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  Ball Four by Jim Bouton.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

How much time do you spend each week writing? Not as much as you'd think.  I can only write for two or three hours a day without my head exploding.  I have a short attention span, I guess (like my readers).  But I spend much more time than that making phone calls, writing letters, paperwork, doing research, and especially responding to email.  That takes up most of my time. Reading?  If I can make it through The New York Times every day, I consider it an accomplishment.  I try to read a book at night before bed, but I often fall asleep while doing it.  I wish I had more time to read, but life gets in the way.  Most of my reading is research for my books.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

For The Genius FilesHarper Collins suggested I try an action/adventure story, along the lines of Alex Rider by Anthony Horowitz.  So I read one of the books, and thought, "Wow, this is really good!  I could never write anything as good as this."  But I sat down and thought about it, and even though I'm no Anthony Horowitz, I could write an action/adventure story in my own style.  So I thought I'd have TWO main characters, a boy and a girl, so ALL kids would relate to the story.  They're twins, and their names are Coke and Pepsi.  I thought it would be exciting to have them take a cross-country driving trip over the summer with their parents, and have these lunatic bad guys trying to kill them the whole time.  So it was very hard work (and also fun) to plot out their route and think up unusual ways for the twins to get in and out of trouble.  The first Genius Files book came out in January, and Coke and Pepsi got from California to Wisconsin.  In the second book, which comes out next January, they get from Wisconsin to Washington D.C.  And now I'm working on the third book, which gets them from Washington to Memphis.  Finally, #4 will get them from Memphis back home.  That is, if they survive.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I can only speak for myself.  In my case, like Lady Gaga, I was born this way.  Writing always came naturally to me.  I never took any writing classes.  I studied psychology in college, and even went to graduate school for two years.  It wasn't until after that, when I was about 25, that I decided to try to make it as a writer.  And I struggled for a long time writing for adults--about fifteen years--before I started to have any success writing for kids.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is the freedom.  I don't have a job, a boss telling me what to do, or a commute to some office somewhere.  I can dress like a slob (and I do).  If something interests me--like baseball, for instance--I can spend the next six months creating a book on that subject.  My other favorite thing is turning kids on to reading.  I didn't get into this field to save the world or anything, but when you can make such an impact on somebody's life simply by writing some silly words on a piece of paper, well, that's really rewarding.

My least favorite thing is that despite that freedom, I am still very much dependent on other people for my success or failure.  If a publisher does not advertise or promote a book, or if they design a lousy cover for it and it doesn't sell as a result, kids will not read it and there's not much I can do.  That's very frustrating.  The best stuff I ever wrote, I think, was my worst-selling books.  On the other hand, of course, I've written some books that I didn't think were that great, and they sold very well.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer?  After you write your first draft, look at it.  Read it out loud.  And while you are reading it out loud, PRETEND THAT YOU'RE NOT YOU.  Pretend you're somebody else.  A friend.  A stranger.  Whatever.  And when you read your own writing through somebody else's eyes, you will see the mistakes you have made, and you'll see how you can make your writing better.  That's a little trick I use. And of course, go to my website ( and click on TIPS FOR YOUNG AUTHORS.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Paul McCartney and John Lennon, together.  When people ask me what book or author inspired me the most when I was growing up, I can't think of any.  I didn't even like to read when I was a kid.  The people who inspired me the most, and still do, were The Beatles.  I admired their originality, their songwriting, their willingness to evolve, experiment, and break the rules.  And of course, their genius. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I promised last week to tell you what I thought of the eighth Harry Potter movie. Mrs. Ninja and I did indeed see it in Imax over the weekend. It’s a good time, but the book was better (of course it was). Mrs. Ninja cried, but I found it to be an odd experience. It’s a fine finale, to be sure, but I wish Warner Brothers hadn't broken the story in half as it’s hard to get invested in a film that’s all ending with no beginning or even a brief summary of what happened prior to the first scene. My favorite part of the movie was the (minor spoiler) opening shot of Dobby the house elf’s grave assuring he will not be in the movie as he is the Jar Jar Binks of the Harry Potter universe:)

The thing I first noted about this week’s book, The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable by Dan Gutman, is its dedication: To Liza Voges. For those who don't know, Lisa Voges is Dan Gutman's literary agent at Eden Street. I think it speaks volumes of the importance of having a literary agent that this book was dedicated to her. In fact, it was Liza Voges who wrote me and asked if I'd like to read her client's book. And did I ask her some questions, say about 7 of them? You know I did, Esteemed Reader, and I'll be posting her interview on Saturday, so be sure to come back for that, as well as on Thursday, when we'll have the man himself, Mr. Dan Gutman, right here at this very blog.

While I'm pointing out things about the beginning of the book, let me also share this opening quote with you:

“Do stupid stuff, and even stupider stuff will happen to you.”
--Nobody said this. But somebody should have.

I don't actually have a point to make about this quote, it just cracked me up and I wanted to share it with you. I also want to share with you the first page as it's just a bang-up opening and you know how much I love great openings that hook the reader from the start. Especially when they are followed up with an exciting and engaging novel that is very funny. Read the next paragraph and just try not to get hooked (Go ahead. I'll wait):

There were ten items on Coke McDonald’s to-do list on June 17, but JUMP OFF A CLIFF was not one of them.
CLEAN OUT MY LOCKER was on the list.
PICK UP MY YEARBOOk was on the list.
But nothing about jumping off a cliff.
And yet, oddly enough, jumping off a cliff was the one thing that Coke McDonald was actually going To Do on June 17.
Not only was he going to jump off a cliff, but first he was going to push his twin sister, Pepsi.
Now, before we get to the cliff-jumping part of the story, maybe I’d better explain something. Why would anyone in their right mind name their children Coke and Pepsi?

How sweet an opening is that? Obviously, starting a story with your characters about to jump off a cliff is exciting stuff. The only way to make it more exciting is to put a river of alligators beneath the cliff and/or bamboo spikes:)

What’s interesting here is that Gutman isn’t actually showing us his characters jumping off a cliff just yet. He will, of course, as not to would be like offering us a bowl of candy and then withdrawing it when we reached for some. But what directly follows the passage you just read is five pages of exposition. Coke and Pepsi don’t actually jump off the cliff until the last page of the second chapter.

Now don’t get me wrong. The exposition is well written and funny and combined with the opening lines, it sets the tone for the very humorous, tongue-and-cheek story that we’re about to read. One passage is so entertaining, I’m going to share it with you in a moment. And characters’ being named Coke and Pepsi McDonald does require a little explanation.

But exposition is exposition and the promise of a cliff jump is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. The pages fly by as the reader rushes to get to the bit about the cliff. Although, as I've said, these pages are by no means something the reader wouldn't enjoy without the hook, they’re certainly made better for it.

And to be fair, the first eleven pages of chapter two are catching us up on what’s happened to force the McDonald twins to jump off a cliff. Their jumping off a cliff means nothing to us until we know just a little bit about them to care that they might die and the bare minimum explanation as to why they would want to jump off a cliff. If these kids are just a couple of reckless cliff jumpers, who cares. But if they are being chased by men who want to kill them and then by a woman carrying an exploding Frisbee who gives them wing suits with which to glide off the cliff like squirrels, that’s a quite a different matter.

Chapter three has the twins gliding through the air and fortunately I recently viewed Transformers 3 and so could picture this quite clearly in my mind (there are wing suits as well as robots in Michael Bay’s cinematic triumph, worth noting for any Academy members reading this). Actually, for better or for worse, I’m betting a fair amount of readers will be thinking of Transformers 3, which is simply a matter of serendipitous release dates. But even if readers aren't thinking of the silver screen, Gutman has written a high octane opening that gives the reader enough of what they want that they’ll be satisfied for a few more chapters of plot and character until a school is burned down.

And by now, Esteemed Reader, you know just what sort of book you’re getting into. Someone is trying to kill Coke and Pepsi McDonald because, wait for it, they scored extremely well on standardized tests and have therefore been selected for a top secret government program known as The Genius Files.

After witnessing the destruction of the pentagon on September 11, 2001, Dr. Herman Warsaw has decided that the only answer to the world’s problems is to enlist the genius children across the United States and to send them on top secret missions that not even their parents can know about. But could the inventor of such a crazy scheme be, in fact, crazy himself? Dum, dum, dum! But I’ve said too much.

What alarmed me just a little was that there is a lengthy description of the events of September 11th, 2001, in Chapter 5, even going so far as to counter the popular conspiracy theory that a plane did not actually crash into the pentagon. Doesn't everyone already know all that stuff? I don’t want to spend much time on this subject as it’s just a detail of the overarching plot, but it occurred to me that it’s coming up on ten years and therefore there are children who will be reading this book who won’t remember that day, but who may have seen YouTube conspiracy videos and who will need these details spelled out for them.

There’s nothing profound here beyond the Ninja’s realization that he’s getting older, time is passing, and a new generation is scheming to rise up and replace him one day. Still, it’s a testament to Gutman’s knowing his reader that he accepts they may need to be caught up to follow the story.

Okay, back on track. The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable is a good start for what promises to be a fun and exciting series (there’s an excerpt from Book 2 at the end, but don’t read it before hand as it totally spoils Book 1). I’m looking forward to more adventures with Coke and Pepsi and I’ll bet you will too. It’s just a good set-up. What kid wouldn’t like to have a secret double life as a government operative? And Gutman is funny while he keeps the thrills coming, ensuring a good time lies ahead.

And now I have three points I want to make about craft and some lengthy passages to share and we’ll call it a review. My first point I’m going to let Gutman make for me:

Ordinarily in a story, this is where the author tells the readers what the main character—or, in this case, characters—look like. The author might on for page after page, painting a glorious word picture of Coke’s and Pep’s hair, their faces, the way they walk and talk, the way they dress, and so on.
But you know what? Who cares? Do you really care what Coke and Pep look like? Does it really matter to you. It’s boring. By the time you get to Chapter Three, you will have forgotten the description you read back in Chapter One, anyway. Coke and Pep are twelve-year-old twins, about to turn thirteen in a week. Okay? Nuff said. That’s all you need to know right now.
You really want to know what they look like? Look at the cover of this book. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s move on to the good part—the part where Coke and Pep go over the cliff.

What he said. I don’t really have anything to add.

The second thing I want to draw your attention to is that The Genius Files is a series being written for today’s kids. It’s anyone’s guess as to which books will end up being new classics and which won’t and much of it is beyond the author’s control. After all, Bridge to Terabithia is very much a story of its time and yet it remains popular today. Too many writers avoid specifically nailing their book to the time in which it is written in hopes of giving the novel longevity. Even the Ninja was advised to cut President Obama from his hopefully soon-to-be-published manuscript for this very reason.

But adult writers don’t do this. Under the Dome by Stephen King (reading it again because it ruled) makes use of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, whom readers twenty or thirty years from now might not know, and James Patterson opens many of his Alex Cross novels with a review of movies or books that just came out (somebody get Patterson a blog). The Genius Files never states a date, but Gutman does provide links to webpage’s for readers to verify information. How long those links will be good is anyone’s guess. But in the meantime, it’s an innovative way to further involve young readers and to make a book a part of their overall interactive media experience.

The McDonalds are on a trip across America and Gutman explains to young readers how they can go online to Google Maps and chart their journey. It’s a good idea and a way to create an interactive, multimedia experience without investing in a website or other online campaign. The Genius Files may go on to become a classic, it may not. There’s no way to know. For all we know, Harry Potter may yet fizzle out and future readers will have never heard of him. They may not, and this is truly frightening, even know who Batman is (I could never live in such a world). After all, it’s a comic book, not The Odyssey (Superman, on the other hand…). Although, for the record, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is an American epic I hope will linger after our empire has collapsed.

Gutman isn’t particularly worried what readers one hundred years from now will think about The Genius Files. He wants to hook today’s readers and he’s written a book for them. Should a classics edition be released in one hundred years with updated links, gravy, and there’s nothing preventing future generations from doing it. But Gutman isn’t sacrificing today’s readership in the hopes of being discovered after his death, which seems to be the strange strategy of a number of writers.

My third and final point is that Gutman slips in a bit of editorial now and again, but he does it without interrupting the story. No one wants to read a writer’s manifesto. We don’t really care what the writer’s political beliefs may be. We just want a good story. Writers who include entire chapters of idealogical diatribes will likely lose readers (we’re looking for fiction, not Bill Maher’s New Rules). But a writer who gives us a good story well told can get away with slipping a few quick shots in now and again, so long as he does so sparingly and without halting the narrative.

For example, the twins themselves are named Coke and Pepsi McDonald in “an ironic statement about how corporations control people’s lives.” After all, they have to be named something, and Gutman knows as well as you and I do that sooner or later we are going to have to fight back against big business to avoid being shills and slaves, so why not fan the flames of revolution just a little? Heck, as a writer of a great adventure, you've got the attention of young readers, which is what you wanted in the first place, so why not tell them a little of what you want to say? So long as you keep it in the story and pick your moments, that’s a writer’s privilege.

And having Pep respond in conversation with her father: “But wasn’t Manifest Destiny just an excuse to steal the land and kill the Indians who were living in North America long before we did?” asked Pep. “Wasn’t it almost like genocide?” doesn’t alter the tone of the story, nor does it interrupt it. There’s a line and the closer you come to crossing it, the more readers you risk alienating. Still, Gutman delivers on an exciting adventure and therefore earns a few asides. And why not provoke the thoughts of young readers with an alternate version of Manifest Destiny than the official story they may have read so long as you’re quick about it? Isn’t provoking young minds the whole point?

And that’s where we’ll leave it. Come on back on Thursday to see Dan Gutman face the 7 Questions and again on Saturday when literary agent Liza Voges will be here to do the same. As always, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite excerpts from The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable:

Chances are you’ve never fallen off a cliff. If you had, you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now. Because you would be dead.
But have you ever jumped off a high diving board? Have you ever dropped into a steep water slide or a half pipe? Have you ever been on a really high roller coaster?
Well, forget it. Falling off a cliff is nothing like any of those experiences. You still have no idea what the McDonald twins were going through.

Coke had a theory to explain grown-ups, as he did for most things in life. In his view, babies are born with a specific number of brain cells, which waste away and die off as people get older. So by the time they reach thirty—and certainly by the time they reach forty—most of their brain cells are gone. This explains why grown-ups do and say the things they do.
To back up his theory, in third grade Coke did a school research project involving music. He made a list of the greatest composers in history, from Beethoven to the Beatles. Then he tracked when they wrote their best music.
Irving Berlin wrote his first hit song—“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—when he was just twenty-three years old. The Beatles made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their most innovative album, when John Lennon was twenty-seven and Paul McCartney was twenty-five. Beethoven started going deaf at thirty-one. Mozart was composing minuets at age five and was dead at thirty-five.
Almost as a rule, composers created their finest work in their twenties. There was a severe drop after the age of thirty. This, to Coke, was proof that the human brain deteriorates by the time people become parents. Which explains why parents are so weird. They’re essentially operating with an empty skull filled with dead brain cells.

And if his family wanted him to drive hours out of his way to Minnesota to see another @#$%^** ball of twine, he decided, then, @#$%^**, he would drive them there. That's the kind of a man he was.
Please excuse the language. This is just what was going through Dr. McDonald's mind.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Eddie Schneider

Eddie Schneider is the VP of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he joined in 2008. He is actively building his client list (see “What I’m Looking For,” below).

Eddie Schneider is an Iowa graduate, where he studied fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction (mentors include Yiyun Li and G.C. Waldrep). He is also a graduate of New York University, with an M.S. in Publishing, and started out in book publishing with a post at Folio Literary Management.

He has also been, at various points in his life, a magazine editor, computer salesman, short-order cook, archery instructor, freelance graphic designer, and ultramarathoner.

Eddie Schneider’s clients include Tobias Buckell, Adam-Troy Castro, Frederick Durban, Dene Low, E.C. Myers, Janci Patterson, Jon Sprunk, among others.

For more information about Ediie Schneider as well as other literary agents, I cannot overstate the benefeits of reading my friends Casey McCormick and Natalie Aguirre's incredible blog, Literary Rambles.

And now Eddie Schneider faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I should limit this to middle grade/YA, so here goes:

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a wonderful novel. He takes the whole "diary of an outcast" conceit that other novels have treated like a gimmick, and goes deeper than just the usual everykid growing pains. There's a real process of self-discovery to the novel, it takes on uncomfortable issues that most novels flat-out ignore, and despite all the seriousness I'm conveying here, it was fun to read.

Ursula K. Le Guin's Very Far Away from Anywhere Else is a short novel that is criminally underexposed. It's the book about growing up I most closely relate to, from one of my all-time favorite authors.

Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker was simply fantastic. It's a fast-paced, engaging novel, that proves itself to be thoroughly researched, with invented castes that pass an anthropological smell test. I also found it to do a brilliant job of engaging with the psychology of violence.

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

Three recent favorites are Wall-E, Sugar, and somewhat surprisingly, The Princess and the Frog (it was so nice to see a Disney movie that wasn't just there to sell Happy Meals and straight-to-DVD sequels).

I could probably go on for pages and pages talking about favorite films; however, I don't watch much TV. NOVA and Futurama are pretty much it.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

My ideal client has a good work ethic, the deeply-felt desire to keep growing as an artist, and killer dessert recipes.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I would most like to see more middle grade science fiction. The adventure inherent to the genre lends itself really, really well to MG, but I haven't been getting enough of that. While I do like dystopian fiction, I want to also see sf that does something besides rewrite "Lord of the Flies" with more technology and various forms of warmed-over fascist governments.

I'm also happy to look at realistic MG novels, as well as fantasy in its myriad forms.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

There are two. One is simply watching a client's manuscript evolve into its published form, through many iterations, revisions, and frustrations. The second is when translation sales start to roll in for a client. It feels really good to have publishers and readers all over the world recognize a story's quality and appeal, and want to read it, across cultures and despite differences.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

The main thing is to keep after it. But in doing so, work hard and smart. If you haven't, join a writing group with people who are serious about their writing and aren't there just to pat you on the back. If you get an agent, get a deal, get a book published, pay close attention to the contract, save your receipts, do the many little things that seem tedious but will help you down the road. Ask questions if there's something you don't understand, try to catch yourself if you're making assumptions (they can be false), and do new things.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Benjamin Franklin. I don't want to say anybody living, because there's always the possibility, however remote, of meeting that person, of their knowing you're a fan of them (which is different than saying you really admired the product of their artistic imagination), and that creating weirdness that can't be overcome. Plus, Benjamin Franklin would be completely awesome to meet.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

7 Questions For: Author Tommy Greenwald

Tommy Greenwald is the author of Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading. Click here to read my review.

Here is Tom Greenwald in his own words:

Who would like to read about the details of my childhood and how I always wanted to be a writer and how after all these years it’s so awesome that my dream has finally come true, and therefore I ROCK!

Didn’t think so.

Here’s all you need to know, really.

My wife is named Cathy, and she doesn’t want her picture on the website because even though she’s gorgeous (seriously), she always thinks she looks horrible in pictures.

My three kids are named Charlie, Joe and Jack. (Charlie Joe Jackson, get it?)

My two dogs are named Moose and Coco, just like in the book. They’re both rescued chocolate labs, and they are ridiculously awesome.

My job when I’m not writing books is executive creative director at Spotco. We make ads for broadway shows. If you want to know more, check out our website:

This other thing I wrote is a musical called john and jen. It was done in NYC in 1995 and still gets done around the country and in Europe and stuff. If you want to know more, google it or go to; if you want to buy the CD – and really, who doesn’t? – go to

And now Tom Greenwald faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I'm just starting to read kidlit so I'm going to have to go with adult books, hope that's okay! Catch 22, by Joseph Heller; Letting Go, by Philip Roth; The Magus by John Fowles. Fave kid book so far: Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, by Lauren Tarshis

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I used to read a lot until I started this whole writing thing. I write on the train going to and from work, so usually about 5-7 hours a week, then some touch-ups on the weekend at the library. I can't write at home. Home is for television.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

My three boys - Charlie, Joe and Jack - all hated to read growing up. It was a helpless feeling trying to get them to read. I decided to write a book especially for kids who don't like books. Thus, Charlie Joe Jackson was born.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I think it's a combination. An ear for dialogue and authenticity is something that i think is more innate than learned. But everything else - structure, plot, pacing, character development - is worth learning about. And by learning, I mean everything from taking classes to reading a lot of books and writing a bunch and simply talking to people. I've never taken a writing class, but have soaked up a lot of knowledge in other ways.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing about writing is finishing. My least favorite thing is starting. At heart, I'm a reluctant writer. Which is maybe why I write for reluctant readers.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

I'm a firm believer in word count. Word count is your friend. Word count can keep you going. Word count can help you set goals, and achieve them. And don't be afraid that keeping an eye on word count will ruin your artistic vision. For me, it helped my pacing and my discipline.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Woody Allen. I'd like to know how he's had the energy and desire to make one movie a year for 45 years. And I'd like to know how he comes up with the names for his characters. (My fave: Fielding Mellish)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book of the Week: CHARLIE JOE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO NOT READING by Tommy Greenwald

Esteemed Reader? Is it really you? We've been apart for far too long. Dry those eyes, Esteemed Reader, we are united once again! I’m so happy to see you I think I’ll give you a book. Why not this week’s book? Would you like that? You would!

Very well. All you need to do is comment on this post and include the phrase “I’m not going to read any other books ever again!” in the comments section (I'll know your fingers are crossed) for a chance to win a copy of Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald. And come back on Thursday to read a 7 Question Writer Interview with Tommy Greenwald himself, then come again on Saturday when we’ll have Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky here to face the 7 Questions for Literary Agents. You don’t actually have to come back those days to win the book, but you should, because it’s going to be awesome. Comment entries will be accepted on this post until Monday, July 18th, when the winning comment will be chosen by Eeney Miney Moe from a random starting point. 

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is well worth winning, though it’s perhaps unfortunate that our first Book of the Week after my sabbatical is Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading. So thoroughly had Charlie Joe convinced me to give up reading there were almost no future reviews. But in the end, I enjoyed Tommy Greenwald’s book so much I guess I’ll keep searching for another book that makes me laugh as hard. It’s just a fun book and if for some reason your comment isn't selected in our contest, you should buy a copy anyway:)

And if you’re a writer, not a just reader, and I know most of you Esteemed Reader’s are, you should definitely buy a copy of Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading. Most adults might say “here, at last, is a book for reluctant readers to encourage them.” That’s all well and good for parents and teachers, but you and I, Esteemed Reader, are looking to expand our market and exploit every possible reader. Charlie Joe Jackson will arm you with an understanding as to why some children so passionately dislike reading and his tips will help you to improve your own manuscripts as to snag even the most the reluctant reader (and trick them into buying the sequel, mwuhahaha).

This is how Charlie Joe Jackson greets us on page one:

If you’re reading this book, you don’t like reading.
In fact, you do whatever you can to avoid reading, and the fact that you’re holding a book in your hand right now is kind of shocking.

From here, Charlie Joe goes on to warn us of the many dangers of reading, such as it makes us fat. In a way, this book is split into two books. One book is a conversation between us and Charlie about why reading sucks and what authors might do to improve it (that’s the part you and I care most about, Esteemed Reader). The second book is the actual story, which is also fun.

Charlie’s a like-able enough guy, though he narrates his story with impeccable skill, which is odd considering how much he hates to read:) He’s a middle school boy in Eastport, who loves beetles, chocolate, and dogs. He’s innovative in a Ferris Bueller kind of way, he’s considerate of other people (especially, shock, his big sister), and he’s popular. 

It’s been a long time since I read a book about a middle school protagonist who doesn't feel alienated from the rest of the population. Charlie’s well liked and the “hottest” girl in his grade has a crush on him. It’s refreshing to sometimes get to read from the perspective of the sort of character who’s usually a jerk and/or villain in so many other books.

Greenwald takes great advantage of the fact that his protagonist is a first person narrator and this is one book I cannot imagine written any other way. Charlie Joe is written quite well in his scenes with other characters. His dialogue is natural enough and his actions appear to be genuinely motivated. But its in the asides and the chapters between the story when Charlie talks directly to the reader that Charlie’s true self shines through. For example:

The librarian, Ms. Reedy, was an old friend of mine, even though she represented everything evil.

And later:

I actually made up a song for her a couple of years ago when I first saw her in action. “Hurricane Eliza comin’ in, the hottest hurricane in town, you’ll get blown away when Hurricane Eliza’s comin’ down.” The tune I came up with is pretty catchy, but you can’t hear it, because this is a book—another problem with books by the way.

Charlie Joe’s quest is to avoid reading at all costs. His conflict is that he is required to research multiple books for a major report and presentation at school, which pretty well determines his grade. Charlie Joe wants to do well in school, but he wants to do it without reading. It’s a good set up and the story that follows is fun and very funny. Greenwald expertly navigates the politics of middle school and delivers a good story well told. You can’t ask for much more than that.

My favorite piece Charlie Joe Jackson’s advice to reading boys is: 

If you have to read, read about girls. It helps you understand them better. 

The opposite applies for the ladies, and for the LBGT community, you read whatever you want. At any rate, this idea of getting the inside track on the girls was one of my main motivators to read at Charlie Joe’s age and I think it will strike a nerve with reluctant readers. I've read Twilight and sat through at least one episode of True Blood trying to better understand Mrs. Ninja (my comprehension is a work in constant progress).

The last point I want to make about Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading is not really a point or a criticism (I don’t do those), but more an observation. In the Advanced Reader Copy I read, this sentence was included: I’m proud of my perfect record. All the kids knew about it, and were pretty d**n impressed.

In the actual published version that I’m going to give to one of you lucky Esteemed Readers, the same sentence reads: All the kids knew about it, and were mighty impressed. I know this because the first version of the sentence stayed with me after I finished the book and I checked the new copy to see if the bad word made the final cut.

Why do I bring this up? It seems kind of a jerk move seeing as how Tommy Greenwald arranged for me to get two copies of his book and agreed to be here to face the 7 Questions. Am I really so offended by the d-word? Esteemed Reader, please. 

As I said, I don’t have a point, just an observation. I like the first version of the sentence better. Mighty impressed is not the same as d**n impressed and frankly I’d be surprised if a boy of Charlie Joe’s age didn't use a few naughty words now and again. So why the change?

Well, for one thing the final book has wonderful illustrations by J.P. Coovert sure to attract younger readers who are fans of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Would the d-word cause parents and some librarians to pause before recommending the book to younger readers? It might, alas (stupid country being founded by puritans). Would it turn off some readers? In a perfect world, no, but in this one, probably.

This isn't to say middle grade writers shouldn't ever use profanity in their books. I’m headed off to see the final Harry Potter movie this weekend and I’ll be very disappointed if Mrs. Weasley doesn't yell “Get away from her, you b***h!” But that scene has a great deal of impact and is the pay off for seven books of wizard mischief. 

Whereas, Charlie Joe Jackson’s aside is not pivotal. Inserting “mighty” does not drastically alter the tone of the book or hamper the story or even change the meaning of the scene. The impact of the change is extremely minimal. If it were my book and I had to choose between a fairly innocuous change like this and potentially alienating precious readers for a debut novel, I’d make that change in a minute. Risk versus reward, man.

And that’s going to do it.  I'll leave you with some more of my favorite passages from Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading:

I’ve been head over heels for Hannah Spivero since… what’s today, Saturday? Let’s see… Wednesday… Thursday… Friday…
About seven years.

Middle-school parties are all pretty much the same; cold pizza, soggy cookies, flat soda, deafening music, a couple of kids kissing, a ton of kids pretending not to look but actually staring at the kids kissing, and the little sister of the host constantly coming in and out, supposedly to see if the chips bowl needs refilling, but really just to check out what was going on and report back to the parents that nobody had overdosed on potato chips and was projectile vomiting on the couch.

The place erupted. Chaos. Pandemonium. Anarchy. Bedlam. (—check it out.)

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ninja Emergency

Hello there, Esteemed Reader! So good to see you, especially just now. As you know, today was to be my glorious return to regular posting, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to put that off at least another week. It's too bad. I've got a whole host of great interviews lined up for you and some wonderful books to share, but they'll keep. They'll have to. My apologies to Tom Greenwald and to the other authors and agents who have been so gracious as to share their time with us. But I promise their interviews will be posted in the next week or so.

I hope your 4th of July was wonderful. Mine was not. I'm not going to share a lot of details, but I'm typing this in the waiting room of the ICU at an Indiana hospital where I've been camped out for the last 24+ hours. Both of my parents were injured yesterday and it's been touch and go. At the moment, it looks like we'll all be walking out of here, but we're not out of the woods yet. I'll be back with you soon, Esteemed Reader, and I'm looking forward to it. In the meantime, your thoughts and prayers are appreciated and I need to get back to my family.